Daily Archives: March 8, 2017

“If nothing is true…” A Review of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 128 pages, Tim Duggan Books, March 2017

Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Among his publications are several award-winning books, all of which have been translated: The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke (2008); Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010), Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Snyder is also the co-editor of Wall Around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in Europe and North America (2001) and Stalin and Europe: Terror, War, Domination (2013). He helped Tony Judt to compose a thematic history of political ideas and intellectuals in politics, Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012). He is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and sits on the advisory councils of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research and other organizations.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today a short review of a very timely new book. Dr. Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

The book is a must read for anyone concerned with the direction that the United States and Western Europe are heading at this time. If we have an expert in understanding tyranny today it is Dr. Snyder. His research and writing in that field, highlighted by his books and publications on the history of Germany and Eastern Europe should be read in order to grasp the full implications of totalitarianism.

This book is timely and concise. It easily can be read in one sitting, but you will want to go back and read it again and again as his salient points need to be thought about, digested, and taken for action, not only in public but in our private lives.

Snyder’s premise is that Americans are no wiser than the peoples of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s in their response and acceptance of totalitarian movements. He asserts that we must grapple with history to understand what is going on and to warn us that temptation “to think our democratic heritage automatically protects us from threats,” is a “misguided reflex.”

In the twenty short chapters of the book Snyder presents twenty historical lessons from the twentieth century which he has adapted to the situation that we find ourselves today. Our founders were aware of the dangers to the republic that they founded, and from their study of Greece and Rome, particularly the threats of oligarchy and empire which overcame those ancient democracies. He explains that the founders attempted to mitigate those dangers in the institutions that they created but did not think that what they created was immune to those threats. James Madison wrote that tyranny rises “on some favorable emergency.”  The understood as Aristotle did that inequity brought instability and Plato’s belief that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants. They “fought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny.”  That is an ongoing struggle today, both in the United States and Western Europe.

His talks about the means that authoritarians use to gain and keep power, particularly in their cynical derision of truth, claims to different truths, and alternative facts. One particular point that he makes is that we have to believe in truth, and fight for it. He writes: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

In each chapter he makes very practical observations and recommendations which can be implemented in our public and private lives. One of the most important of these is real human contact, meeting and getting to know people who came from different backgrounds and experiences than us; simple things like making eye contact, and having private lives, building friendships, and hobbies, even as he notes former Czech dissident and later President Vaclav Havel even suggested brewing beer.

But he also mentions the importance of remembering professional ethics, investigating truth claims, standing out in the crowd, not obeying authority in advance, defend democratic institutions including the press and the courts, to listen for dangerous words such as extremism and terrorism, as well as what he calls the “fatal notions of emergency and exception” and the “treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.”

I could go on, but I would rather that you read his words. The book can be purchased for under seven dollars, and the Kindle edition for under three dollars.

I highly recommend this book, it is a must for our day.


Padre Steve+


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